The #1 Reason Women Don’t Get The Job

This guest post is by ELGL member Lori Sassoon, ICMA-CM
Deputy City Manager, City of Rancho Cucamonga, CA
President, Women Leading Government


The women I know in public service are educated, experienced, politically-savvy, dedicated, and motivated. They take on thankless assignments, build their professional networks through groups like ELGL, and make time for ongoing professional development.  But when the next step job opportunity comes up, they don’t get that job. Why?

There may be many reasons why a qualified woman is passed over and someone else is hired. But in more than 25 years of working in local government, I’ve observed time and time again the #1 reason why this happens.

The #1 reason women don’t get the job is because they didn’t apply for it.

Books like Lean In and others have cited the studies showing that qualified women are less likely to apply for a given position, while less qualified men will apply. A 2014 study published in Harvard Business Review showed that the reason is not lack of confidence on the part of women; instead, women take “minimum qualifications” literally, and assume they couldn’t compete if they are missing something on that list.  Hiring processes tend to be more flexible in reality, and so women are self-selecting out of hiring processes unnecessarily.

Truthfully, I’m not terribly interested in the deep psychological and sociological reasons why women don’t apply for the next job. I’m more concerned about how we can fix this problem and convince more women to put themselves in the applicant pool. I do more than my fair share of encouraging, prodding, and yes, nagging colleagues to apply, but they almost always resist with one or more of these rationalizations:

  • I’m not ready
  • They’re looking for someone else; someone else has an “in” on this job
  • I’m not sure I want that job – I don’t know the manager, or the responsibilities
  • It’s not a good time for me because of my family situation

Have you had these same thoughts about applying for that next position? Here’s how I respond to each of these:

I’m not ready – Ok, maybe you’re not ready. Maybe you are right, and you need more experience, or seasoning as a supervisor. But apply for the job anyway, and let the hiring managers figure that out; if you’re really not ready, you’ll shake out of the process.

Or, maybe you actually are ready. No one is going to come and give you a “ready” badge. Just apply and let the process work that out.

The only reason I became a City Manager was because a former boss encouraged me to apply. I had seen the position and really believed I wasn’t ready, but he encouraged me (more than once) that I was, so I reluctantly applied, and was selected. I was more ready than I thought.

They’re looking for someone else – This may also be true. Perhaps there is an internal candidate who has been groomed to be a qualified candidate for this position, and everyone knows it. You should apply anyway, for two important reasons. First, you never know what might change; the heir apparent could leave the organization, the management could change, or something else could happen that opens that door for others to be considered. Secondly, in most organizations the recruitment will end with an eligibility list that could be used to select people for future positions.  You may not get that first job, but if you’re on the list you might get another; but if you don’t apply, you can’t be on that list.

I’m not sure I want that job –Well here’s the thing. No one has offered it to you yet, buttercup. So you have time to learn more and make that decision if or when the time comes. Interviews are a two-way street, and going through the process will let you learn more about the position and the managers. So apply for the job, and then you can figure that out if it’s a good fit.

It’s not a good time for me and my family – Once again, this might be true. But if you love the position and the organization, apply anyway and give you and your family some time to sort through that. There may be positions (and more likely, managers and organizational cultures) that are absolutely not right for you and your family. But let the process play out first.

I am 100% in the “family first” camp, but a little perspective is helpful. When my daughter was in kindergarten and through third grade, worked an alternate schedule and was off every Friday, so I volunteered in her classroom weekly. Every Friday. For 4 years.  I was at every party and function, I graded papers, I helped the teachers. What a precious memory, right? Sure, for me – but not my daughter; she has absolutely no memory of this at all.

The point of this story is that the expectations of the mommy groups/Pinterest everything/snapchat my life/buy more stuff world sometimes lead us to the “it’s not a good time” frame of mind. Relax your expectations of perfection at home, and apply for the job that will bring you joy professionally.

So, let’s resolve to make this #1 reason go away. Apply for that job and encourage your female colleagues to apply, too. Let the process play out and see where you land. If you need someone to nag you, email me at lori.sassoon@cityofrc.us.